Bipartisan Immigration Measure Moves Forward in the House

In a rare moment of bipartisanship last week, members of the House Judiciary Committee approved a measure entitled, Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, which would eliminate the per-country cap for employment-based immigrants, and increase per-country limits for family-based immigrants from seven percent to fifteen percent of all family-based immigrant visas issued.

The measure was introduced by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and co-sponsored by Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), the Ranking Minority Member on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement. The House Judiciary Committee vote clears the way for a vote by the full House of Representatives, and eventual Senate consideration.

Current law restricts the number of employment-based and family-sponsored green cards to no more than seven percent of the total number of green cards awarded annually. This bottleneck disproportionately affects aspiring immigrants from India and China, due to the large numbers of applicants from those countries. As Chairman Smith explained in a statement at the Committee Markup last week:

“Because of these annual numerical caps on green cards and the fact that some countries have more of the skilled workers that American employers want, natives of these countries must often wait years longer for green cards than natives of other countries.

“In the employment-based, second preference category for professionals with advanced degrees and aliens of exceptional ability, green cards are now immediately available to approved applicants from most countries. However, because employers seek so many workers from India and China, the per-country caps result in green cards only being available to those natives who first applied on or before November 2007, four years ago.” (See Statement of Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Markup of H.R. 3012, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. Press Release. 27.Oct.2011.)

For green card applicants in the employment-based, third preference category, the situation is even worse; green cards will be available for most of these professionals and skilled workers, if their applications were submitted on or before December 2005. Chinese applicants have wait to more than a year longer, with their priority dates pushed back to August 2004, while for Indian applicants, the priority date is pushed all the way back to July 2002 – almost a decade ago.

Most would agree that this situation is discriminatory and unfair. The sponsor of the remedial measure, Rep. Chaffetz, told The Hill newspaper that getting rid of arbitrary limits on green cards would free American businesses to recruit and hire the best foreign talent, no matter from where they come. (See Committee Approves Bill to Eliminate Per-Country Limits on Skilled Immigrants, by Gautham Nagesh, The Hill, 27.Oct.2011.) It also would level the playing field for employment-based green card applicants from India and China.

For months – years, really – both sides of the immigration debate have been dug into their ideological positions, with little movement on either side, so it’s heartening to see them coming out of the trenches and working together, however tentatively. This would be a small step, in the overall scheme of things, but it’s significant nonetheless, not least because it would show that bipartisan agreement IS possible, even on the most divisive issues. We hope this small corrective measure will mark more than just a temporary cease-fire, since our entire immigration system is badly in need of reform.

The take-home message? Don’t crack open the champagne just yet. The measure still needs to get past the full House and Senate on its way to the President’s desk. Even if it becomes law, one can’t help but wonder whether small adjustments at the margins actually consume some of the momentum that might otherwise push Congress toward a more comprehensive solution – but perhaps we should take our wins where we can.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.